#Kevenge2: It’s not on until it’s on

That’s the problem with leadership challenges: they’re not on until they’re on. The twice-spurned-but-hopes-to-be-vindicated-Prime Minister-in-waiting, Kevin Rudd, won’t declare his hand until he has the numbers.

And right now it appears that he does not have them.

That’s the reason for the flurries of speculation we’re seeing in the media. Rudd supporters are using every known technique to dragoon disillusioned and despairing Labor MPs into knifing another unpopular Prime Minister, in the interests of having at least a fighting chance at the upcoming federal election.

For weeks MPs have been hinting that the showdown would take place this fortnight, being as it is the last parliamentary session before the Federal Budget. Some even went as far as to name the date, although at least two different dates were nominated. This lead to the political equivalent of dry humping last week when the spill did not eventuate, a turn of events that was frustrating and unedifying for pretty much all involved.

But the main game was always due to take place this week. If it does. And then again, it might not.

All will depend on whether a sense of momentum can be created, setting off a wave of inevitability that would sweep the required number of caucus votes away from the listing ship Gillard to the dodgy lifeboat called Kevin.

A number of today’s events can be seen clearly as the Rudd camp working hard to create this momentum:

  • The day kicked off with an opinion piece by overt Rudd supporter and political editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, Peter Hartcher, claiming “the Gillard Government is suffering a gathering crisis in its leader” and that two Cabinet Ministers had deserted Gillard.
  • Meanwhile, on ABC’s The Drum, Rudd’s unofficial campaign manager Bruce Hawker, criticised the “government’s” handling of the media reform issue.
  • Hawker’s theme was then taken up by Rudd numbers man, Joel Fitzgibbon, during Labor’s caucus meeting and duly leaked to the media afterwards.

Meanwhile, the political media is acting like a diabetic kid locked in a lolly shop: they know they shouldn’t, but……

They know they are being drafted as active participants in this saga, and rather than miss out on a story or – heaven forbid – a scoop, they comply with differing degrees of willingness. As we can see from Laurie Oakes’ non-breaking story this evening, not even mighty Walkley Award winners are immune to the lure of a potential leadership spill.

And so, the rest of this week will play out. There will be a challenge if Rudd can get the numbers. But there will not if  he cannot.

If the numbers fall Rudd’s way, it will be academic whether he challenges, is drafted or whether Gillard stands down. But then again, it may not…

Post script: The momentum builds.

4 Corners “The Deal” more Jersey Shore than documentary

I was prepared to come away from watching tonight’s 4Corners program “The Deal” with an extreme emotion. To be frank, I thought that emotion would be exasperation, based on the knowledge that a similar process would be followed for each and every important policy decision brought before these men during this parliamentary term in order to secure passage through the House of Representatives.

I was correct, to a point, but my exasperation emerged from another source altogether. It struck me while watching the program that it was well cast and had a killer plot, but was hollow and jangly in its execution. It occurred to me that the program had the distinct feel of those semi-reality shows, such as The Hills or Jersey Shore, where you can’t distinguish the fact from fabrication.

This suspicion rang true for me most when Windsor beseeched Katter to let the cameras stay to record the momentous decision. It was as if capturing the moment (and its participants) for posterity was more important than having a private, no holds barred, discussion to ensure that the right decision was being made. Indeed, after Katter’s departure, Windsor and Oakeshott obliged the cameras with useful columns drawn on paper and “discussion” of the pros and cons.

My feeling of semi-reality was exacerbated by the absence of Tony Windsor’s cousin, the Labor Party’s spin-meister Bruce Hawker, from any of the footage. Being a former spin doctor myself, I know that the golden rule of PR is to never leave your fingerprints on your work. I read many times during the hiatus that Bruce Hawker was advising Windsor, so why was he not on our screens tonight? Was he stage managing the three media-tarts? Did Katter spit the dummy as a result? I guess we will never know, because the 4 Corners program wasn’t a documentary after all.

Don’t mistake the organ-grinder for the lion-tamer: the media and the 2010 federal election

There’s a lot of outrage mixed with genuine bewilderment being expressed about the role of the media in the federal election campaign.

Much of this angst is due to a lack of insiders’ knowledge about how media, politics and policy work in Canberra and during election campaigns.

Annabel Crabb did a sterling job explaining some of the campaign minutiae in a recent piece. The scorn and derision she received from some readers would have been surprising if not for a related (and heartfelt) complaint by blogger Grog’s Gamut. Even the redoubtable Laura Tingle bemoaned the apparent lack of willingness by the political media to seek and scrutinise policy.

These posts elicited for me an excellent and thought-provoking Twitter exchange with journalism lecturer Jason Wilson during which we pondered why political journalists focus on the superficial drama of the campaign rather than policy. We explored whether political parties’ efforts to tightly manage the media and messages are a defensive move because journalists only focus on drama and superficiality, or whether it is an offensive move to ensure that the key message, and nothing more, makes the TV news each night.

From my perspective, based on real inside experience, it is the latter. Parties are the organ-grinders, doing everything they can to get journalists to dance to their tune, rather than lion-tamers holding a vicious beast at bay.

I believe much of the dissatisfaction with media coverage this election comes from Labor voters/sympathisers because they have not, for many generations, witnessed the degree of media scepticism that is currently being applied to the ALP. Their instinctive reaction is to label this media negativity as bias.

In fact, they are witnessing journalists rebelling against the parties’ (particularly Labor’s) “media management” strategies. Most journalists have finely tuned bullshit detectors and can identify even the most subtle attempts to manipulate them. Journalists’ instinctive reaction is to subvert and therefore expose this constraint in any way they can.

Before you jump to label me a Tory sympathiser, dear reader, cast your mind back over the past 30 years. Can you remember a time when the conservatives were overwhelmingly treated well by the media? I cannot. I’ve observed over that time that most journalists are “small L” liberal or left-leaning. This is no surprise considering that liberal philosophy fits so well with the journalistic motivation to facilitate the public’s right to know.

Journalists’ liberal values were clearly observable during the Hawke, Keating and Howard years. During that time, conservative politicians and parties felt they could never win a trick with the print media, television networks or the ABC.

The political media participated in the Australian community’s adoration of Prime Minister Hawke during his heyday. As Hawke’s light faded, many journalists shifted to actively support Treasurer Keating during his campaign to destablise and ultimately overthrow Australia’s most popular Prime Minister.

At no time in the 80s or 90s were Opposition Leaders Peacock, Hewson, Downer or Howard feted by the media. The conservatives’ only allies were found amongst the conservative shock-jocks in the retail-communication worlds of tabloid newspapers and talkback radio.

Kevin Rudd, in fact, was the first Opposition Leader since Bob Hawke to be given the overwhelming support of the media. Can anyone remember a conservative Opposition Leader who enjoyed this support? No. Labor supporters may be upset at the current unprecedented lack of media support, but it cannot be labeled bias. Its real name is rebellion.

Ironically, and with foresight, the media’s support for Opposition Leader Rudd was begrudging. This sentiment sowed the seeds of the campaign media’s current discontent.

Kevin Rudd is known to have vigorously worked the media during his rise from regular Sunrise guest to Leader of the Opposition during the dark and final days of the Howard government. But once the election campaign-proper commenced, Rudd mimicked the successful small-target strategy utilised by Howard in 1996. Under the tight media-management direction of former Carr spinmeister Bruce Hawker, Rudd became unavailable to the “real” news media. Rudd opted instead to appear on youth-oriented radio programs and television variety shows – affording him the double benefit of direct access to mainstream Australians without having to address pesky questions of policy and substance.

Nevertheless, the political media were so enthralled with the community’s growing dissatisfaction with Howard and the prospect of the government being overthrown, that they were prepared to humour Rudd for the duration of the campaign. A story at the time featured former Hawke media adviser and now ABC Insiders host, Barrie Cassidy, candidly quoting another journalist saying ‘We all know we have to go to war against Kevin Rudd as soon as the election campaign is over.’

This media “war” was held off by the unprecedented honeymoon that Prime Minister Rudd enjoyed with the Australian public during the first two years of his term. Not only did the media sit back in awe of this popularity, so did the political hard heads in the ALP.

In the end though, perhaps Rudd the organ-grinder forgot that monkeys also have teeth. Or that other sidewalk entertainers can be ruthless enough to knife you for the optimal position on the street corner.

Those who wish to lay blame for the behaviour of political media in this election campaign should look no further than the genial Bruce Hawker and the entourage of former media advisers that he brought to Canberra in 2007-08 from the deeply unpopular NSW Labor government. While Hawker’s tight media management strategy, aligned to the relentless 24/7 news cycle, may have delivered for the state government, it did not fit well with the communication needs of a federal government.

Journalistic resentment about Rudd’s media management, and the ALP’s more generally, had been simmering for some time. This was exacerbated by Rudd’s inability to fulfil the great expectations that he created during the 2007 election campaign to positively differentiate himself from the ageing, discredited Howard.

As shocking as Rudd’s removal was, many journalists were relieved and optimistic that the Gillard era would herald a more sensible and less frantic approach to newsmaking. Some of these journalists are young and are travelling with the Leaders’ teams in their first election campaigns. Regardless of their experience, it is easy to infer from their various writings that most campaign journalists are tired, dazed and disoriented. They are sick of being herded from one pic-fac to another, told nothing, given no time to absorb or analyse, and no latitude to report anything other than the message of the day.

It is no wonder then, that they subvert the process by ignoring the strangled notes of the squeeze-box and dance instead to their own tune, asking the most inconvenient and embarrassing questions, and attempting to catch the Leader off guard? Is this natural reaction enough to justify their policy-free questions?

No it’s not. But it should also be remembered that the campaign we see on the nightly news is no more than a flimsy facade. The only campaign that really matters is being deployed in the marginal seats. The purpose of the national campaign is to maintain the status quo (not lose any “tribal” voters) and secure enough supportive voters’ attention/engagement to guarantee they turn up on polling day.

Most policy announcements are designed to do nothing more than grab a headline to reassure a particular demographic. While it is understandable that amateur politicos would like to see genuine analysis of these policies, it’s worth remembering that most political journalists are not policy specialists and do not have a good understanding of how policy is developed or implemented. As a consequence, they pay less attention to these processes and only focus on what they know – the political dimension of policy.

In closing, let me remind you of one small matter. While I have lamented in the past that we do not elect our media, we are ultimately still responsible for their behaviour and their output. At no time have ordinary citizens had more power than now to shape their news media; with their purchasing power, with their voices and with their keyboards. I look forward to reading further contributions to this debate!

Postscript: This excellent piece by senior political journalist Tony Wright is an illuminating addition to the subject

This post was also featured at The Notion Factory.